Consumption as Competition in Nightlife Culture

By Gamal Hennessy

There is an international competition every four years that brings athletes from all over the world for several weeks to participate in events of all types. There is a social competition every night that patrons of every class, race and demographic group compete in when they step up to the bar. Olympic athletes compete for fame, medals and patriotism. What do drinking competitors getting out of their experience? What motivates them to push the boundaries of tolerance and risk damage to their health and social status?

When Drinking Becomes a Sport

Keep in mind I’m not referring to any specific drinking game here. We are discussing drinking as a competition in and of itself without any other secondary set of rules. The rules of the game are simple; who ever is perceived to consume the most liquor in a given period of time and remain functional wins. This is a sprint, not a marathon. Someone who has one drink every night for ten nights is irrelevant to this contest. Someone who has ten drinks in one night is likely to get attention.

The interesting thing about the rules of competitive drinking is that they are seldom explicit. They are only hinted at in the statements that these rivals make:

Don’t try to keep up with me. I will drink you under the table!

You had 5 drinks last night?  I don’t even remember how many I had. It must have been around 9 or 10....

Who wants more shots?

The message is clear; in order to participate in this competition you have to keep drinking until you attain the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

Benefits of the Game

In competitive drinking, the quality of the drink is not important. The quantity is important. That means the benefits of this type of drinking are not sensual, they are social. The winners of competitive drinking are attempting to raise their social status among their peer group. It is a display of strength meant to send a message of high tolerance, endurance and superiority in comparison to the other drinkers. It is also a secondary signal of abundant resources and enthusiasm to push oneself in the name of “having a good time”.

All of this might sound petty and juvenile to the nightlife foreigner but the same dynamic exists in all levels of modern society. In the normal world, we compete in terms of money, house size, weight, hours worked, material goods owned and a host of other social struggles that are nothing more than substitutions for violent conflicts for dominance among our peers. Not everyone subscribes to competitive drinking as a concept, but that doesn’t make it any more or less credible as a social competition within that environment.

Pitfalls of the Game

Every game that has a winner also has a loser. In the case of competitive drinking, the loser is the one who consumes alcohol to the point where he is damaged socially, legally, financially or physically. This can manifest itself in a drunken brawl inside the club, a tarnished reputation, a lost job or a trip to the hospital. The pitfalls of competitive drinking both in the short term and over time can impact every other aspect of the competitor’s life. Like any other social competition however, some people are willing to risk everything for the chance at success. Everyone feels invincible when they start and very few people imagine themselves being the losers. Winning is a more happy daydream.

Two Types of Player

In competitive drinking there are the ones who drink and the ones who pretend to drink and exaggerate their consumption. The drinkers have the ability to enjoy the benefits of the game but also are susceptible to all of the pitfalls. The pretenders also can enjoy the benefits but can often avoid all of the pitfalls depending on how adept they are at subterfuge. While there is a potential social backlash for a person who is consistently caught lying about their drinking levels, the reality is that many people exaggerate their consumption to participate in the game and most of the drinkers do not have the attention span to keep track of what the pretenders do and don’t drink when they are in the heat of competition.

Organizers of the Game

When we try to find out who set up this game and who benefits from it, it is easy to point our fingers at the operators and accuse them of organizing and profiting at the expense of the patron. But a more reasonable observer has to look beyond the four walls of the bar. It is our wider society that pushes the maxim that more is better. It is our general economy that encourages increased consumption as a cornerstone of our prosperity. Outside of nightlife we have found a way to make every aspect of our social lives into some kind of competition. In many ways, nightlife culture is a mirror to mainstream culture. The patrons are primed to compete long before they step past the velvet rope. The operators may profit from this behavior, but they are hardly the ones to create it.

The Game in the Context of Nightlife Culture

Nightlife Culture is an artistic and social environment. If there is an absence of other types of interaction (musical, sexual or communicative) many patrons will default to competitive drinking. Understanding the motivation behind the action and dealing with those drives will help both the patrons and mainstream society better handle the benefits and pitfalls that it creates.

Have fun.
Gamal